Mubarak’s Folly: The Rising of Egypt’s Workers

By David McNally

Rarely do our rulers look more absurd than when faced with a popular upheaval. As fear and apathy are broken, ordinary people – housewives, students, sanitation workers, the unemployed –remake themselves. Having been objects of history, they become its agents. Marching in their millions, reclaiming public space, attending meetings and debating their society’s future, they discover in themselves capacities for organization and action they had never imagined. They arrest secret police, defend their communities and their rallies, organize the distribution of food, water and medical supplies. Exhilarated by new solidarities and empowered by the understanding that they are making history, they shed old habits of deference and passivity.

It is this – the self-transformation of oppressed people – that elites can never grasp. That is what explains the truly delusional character of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s speech on Thursday, February 10, where he prattled on in surreal disconnection from events. But while the aging dictator may be uniquely out of touch, he merely reflects the biases of his class. For it is a general characteristic of our rulers that they imagine those below them to be inherently stupid and deferential. They treat the downtrodden as laboring drones and cannon fodder for military adventures. They feed them lies and empty promises and send in the riot police when the subjugated get unruly. And most of the time they get away with it.

That is why popular revolutions are inexplicable to them. As ordinary people cast off resignation and obedience, as they take control of their communities and reclaim the streets, they become unrecognizable to their rulers. This is the real “intelligence failure” of the ruling class. Contrary to the terms of debate in security circles, it is not that they missed some indicators of institutional change; it is rather that all their models are based on the presumption of popular passivity. “Ordinary Egyptians have a reputation as fatalists,” pronounced a former Canadian diplomat to Egypt in the early days of the revolution, explaining that Egypt would not go the way of Tunisia, where dictator Ben Ali was toppled only weeks earlier.[1] In so doing, the diplomat revealed not only his own foolishness, but also the tone deaf incapacity of elites to comprehend people’s power.

After all, revolutions are not just about changing institutions. Most profoundly, they are about the dramatic remaking of the downtrodden. Revolutions are schools of profound self-education. They destroy submission and resignation, and they release long-repressed creative energies – intelligence, solidarity, invention, self-activity. In so doing, they reweave the fabric of everyday life. The horizons of possibility expand. The unthinkable – that ordinary people might control their lives – becomes both thinkable and practical.

All of this eludes bosses, bureaucrats, generals, politicians, and the vast majority of journalists because they do not understand the inner heart of a genuinely revolutionary process – that having taken to the stage of history, oppressed people are never again the same.

It is this error that explains the frantic tacking and turning of rulers confronted with mass insurgency. One moment they make concessions, the next moment they send in the goons – all in the belief that ordinary people can be beaten back into submission, or bribed with crumbs from the tables of the rich. But the longer they do this, the more they force the mass movement to broaden its base and deepen its struggles. President Ben Ali made this mistake in Tunisia; Mubarak keeps making it in Egypt. And by clinging to power in the face of mass opposition, they give the lowest layers of society the time and space to enter the political sphere. The result is that popular revolutions open the doors to great upsurges of working class struggle.

That has been Mubarak’s greatest folly. It is why Egyptian capitalists, parts of the Egyptian regime and the U.S. state have concluded that he has to go. But the genie of the Egyptian workers having now been awakened, it will be very hard to put it back in the bottle.

THE BIRTH OF POPULAR POWER

Philosopher Peter Hallward is among those few commentators who have grasped the inner workings of the Egyptian Revolution. Writing in the Guardian of London, he observes:

Every step of the way, the basic fact of the uprising has become more obvious and more explicit: with each new confrontation, the protestors have realised, and demonstrated, that they are more powerful than their oppressors. When they are prepared to act in sufficient numbers with sufficient determination, the people have proved that there’s no stopping them.

Again and again, elated protestors have marvelled at the sudden discovery of their own power.[2]

Participants repeatedly describe how their fear has lifted. “When we stopped being afraid we knew we would win,” Ahmad Mahmoud told a reporter. “What we have achieved,” proclaimed another, “is the revolution in our minds.” The significance of such a revolution in attitudes is inestimable. But such shifts do not happen at the level of consciousness alone; they are inextricably connected to a revolution in the relations of everyday life – by way of the birth of popular power. And these new forms of people’s power and radical democracy from below have emerged as steps necessary to preserve the Revolution and keep it moving it forward.

So, when violently attacked, as they were on February 2, 2011, by undercover police and goons of the ruling party wielding guns, knives, Molotov cocktails and more, the insurgents held their ground and fought back, holding Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. In the process, they extended their grassroots self-organization. As reporters for the Washington Post noted, the rebels of Tahrir Square created popular prisons to hold undercover security forces, and people’s clinics to care for the wounded:

Refusing to end their 10-day old demonstration, protesters set up makeshift hospitals in alleyways off the square to treat their wounded, and fashioned a holding cell in a nearby travel office to detain those they suspected of inciting the violence. Organizers said they had captured more than 350 ‘thugs of the government’ among the pro-government demonstrators, some carrying police identification cards, and turned them over to the Egyptian army.[3]

In the same spirit, the movement has formed Peoples Protection forces, staffed by both women and men, to provide safety and security in neighbourhoods and in the mass marches and assemblies. In some towns, like El Arish, the biggest city in the northern Sinai, official police and security forces have melted away only to be replaced by armed Popular Committees, which have maintained the peace.[4]

Developing alongside these forms of popular self-organization are new practices of radical democracy. In Tahrir Square, the nerve center of the Revolution, the crowd engages in direct decision-making, sometimes in its hundreds of thousands. Organized into smaller groups, people discuss and debate, and then send elected delegates to consultations about the movement’s demands. As one journalist explains, “delegates from these mini-gatherings then come together to discuss the prevailing mood, before potential demands are read out over the square’s makeshift speaker system. The adoption of each proposal is based on the proportion of boos or cheers it receives from the crowd at large.”[5]

Tahrir Square and public spaces in Alexandria, Suez and dozens of smaller cities, are now sites of ongoing festivals of the oppressed.  Describing the popular security services and people’s “food supply chains,” demonstrator Karim Medhat Ennarah proclaims, “We have already created a liberated republic within the heart of Egypt.”[6]

ENTER THE WORKERS

Years of courageous struggle by Egypt’s workers were decisive in creating the conditions for the popular uprising. And now, mere weeks into the upsurge, tens of thousands of workers are mobilizing, raising both economic and political demands as part of a rising wave of strikes. The consequences could be momentous.

Social movements generally have been on the move recently in Egypt. The years 2002-3 saw important stirrings of political protest in solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada and in opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Shortly after this, the Kefaya (Enough) movement organized for democratic reform and the feminist group, We Are Watching You (Shayfenkom) came out in defence of women’s rights.

But by 2004 it was strike action, sit-ins and demonstrations by workers that comprised the most determined and persistent oppositional activity – most of it illegal under the emergency edicts and laws that deny workers the right to form independent unions. Over the past six years or so, more than two million workers engaged in thousands of direct actions. Most importantly, they regularly won significant concessions on wages and working conditions. The result was a growing confidence among workers – so much so that genuinely independent unions began to emerge in a society where the official unions are effectively extensions of the state.

In 2006-7 mass working class protest erupted in the Nile Delta, spearheaded by the militant action of 50,000 workers in textiles and the cement and poultry industries. This was followed by strikes of train drivers, journalists, truckers, miners and engineers. Then 2007-8 saw another labor explosion, with riots at the state-owned weaving factory in Al-Mahla Al-Kobra. The youth-based April 6th Movement emerged at this point in support of workers’ strikes. Meanwhile, workers began to address the general interests of all working people, particularly the poorest, by pressing the demand for a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

Now, workers are again throwing their collective power onto the scales of the political struggle in Egypt. And Mubarak and his cronies will live to regret it.

In the course of a few days during the week of February 7, tens of thousands of them stormed into action. Thousands of railworkers took strike action, blockading railway lines in the process. Six thousand workers at the Suez Canal Authority walked off the job, staging sit-ins at Suez and two other cities. In Mahalla, 1,500 workers at Abul Sebae Textiles struck and blockaded the highway. At the Kafr al-Zayyat hospital hundreds of nurses staged a sit-in and were joined by hundreds of other hospital employees.

Across Egypt, thousands of others – bus workers in Cairo, employees at Telecom Egypt, journalists at a number of newspapers, workers at pharmaceutical plants and steel mills – joined the strike wave. They demands improved wages, the firing of ruthless managers, back pay, better working conditions and independent unions. In many cases they also called for the resignation of President Mubarak. And in some cases, like that of the 2,000 workers at Helwan Silk Factory, they demanded the removal of their company’s Board of Directors. Then there were the thousands of faculty members at Cairo University who joined the protests, confronted security forces, and prevented Prime Minister Ahmed Shariq from getting to his government office.[7]

What we are seeing, in other words, is the rising of the Egyptian working class. Having been at the heart of the popular upsurge in the streets, tens of thousands of workers are now taking the revolutionary struggle back to their workplaces, extending and deepening the movement in the process. In so doing, they are proving the continuing relevance of the analysis developed by the great Polish-German socialist, Rosa Luxemburg. In her book, The Mass Strike, based on the experience of mass strikes of 1905 against the Tsarist dictatorship in Russia, Luxemburg argued that truly revolutionary movements develop by way of interacting waves of political and economic struggle, each enriching the other. In a passage that could have been inspired by the upheaval in Egypt, she explains,

Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle. . . After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle burst forth. And conversely. The workers condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting spirit alive in every political interval . . .

And so it is in the Egyptian Revolution. Tens of millions of workers – in transportation, healthcare, textiles, education, heavy industry, the service sector – are being awakened and mobilized. They are fusing demands for economic justice to those for democracy, and they are among the hundreds of thousands building popular power and self-organization. Moreover, should the rising of the workers move toward mass strikes that paralyze the economy, the Egyptian Revolution would move to a new and more powerful level.

What the coming weeks will bring is still uncertain. But Mubarak’s folly has triggered an upsurge of workers’ struggle whose effects will endure. “The most precious, because lasting, thing in this ebb and flow of the [revolutionary] wave is . . . the intellectual, cultural growth of the working class,” wrote Rosa Luxemburg.

In Tahrir Square and elsewhere thousands of signs depict Mubarak accompanied by the words “Game Over.” For the workers of Egypt it is now, “Game On.”

David McNally teaches political science at York University, Toronto and is the author of the recently published, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (PM Press), available here


[1] Michael Bell, “Will Egypt go Tunisia’s way?” Globe and Mail, January 27, 2011.

[2] Peter Hallward, “Egypt’s popular revolution will change the world,” Guardian, February 9, 2011. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/09/egypt-north-africa-revolution.

[3] Leila Fadel, Will Englund and Debbi Wilgoren, “5 shot in 2nd day of bloody clashes; amid outcry Egyptian PM apologizes,” Washington Post, February 3, 2011.

[4] Tobias Buck, “Palestinians hope for change and resumption of border trade,” Financial Times, February 8, 2011.

[5] Jack Shenker, “Cairo’s biggest protest yet demands Mubarak’s immediate departure,” Guardian, February 5, 2011.

[6] Quoted in Hallward.

[7] My sources on workers’ protests include Aljazeera, Al-Masry Al-Youm, the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, newsocialist.org, and socialistworker.org. Special thanks to Jack Hicks for documents and reports.

Night in Tunisia: Riots, Strikes and a Spreading Insurgency

Tunisian-demonstrators

Popular upheavals always carry a distinct sonic resonance. The cascading chants that reverberate through the streets, the roar of the crowd as it drives back the riot police and seizes the city square – all this and more produces an unmistakable acoustic effect. The rhythm of revolt pulsates through society, freedom music fills the air.

Ruminating about this as I watched rebellion flow from Tunisia to Algeria, Jordan and beyond, I was brought back to Dizzy Gillespie’s jazz anthem, Night in Tunisia. Gillespie’s tune emerged as part of a musical upheaval known as the bebop revolution. And its unique blend of Afro-Cuban rhythms and bebop idioms makes it an early experiment in “world music,” a border-crossing mixing of genres. And so it has been with the freedom music emanating from Tunisia. It too is hopping boundaries and echoing far and wide.

“The street has spoken,” is how one Tunisian protestor puts it. Indeed it has. And it shows no sign that it is about to stop its raucous agitation.

Riding a noisy wave of mobilizations, riots and strikes, on January 14 the people of Tunisia toppled the 23-year-long dictatorship of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, sending their former head of state into exile and recording the first great popular victory of the new year.

What’s more, the voices of the street are growing louder, echoing across Algeria, Jordan and beyond in a wave of popular protest directly linked to the world economic crisis.

It is vital to insist on this last aspect of events – their connection to the global slump. Not only is this link especially ominous for the powerful and privileged of the world, foreshadowing revolts to come; it is also critical to countering the narrative running through the western press that Tunisia’s revolt is a product of corruption unique to politics in the Arab world.

The claim is a convenient mystification. For the Tunisian revolt grows out of the dialectic of the local and the global.

In many respects, the point is obvious. Tunisia’s riots and demonstrations began as a direct outburst of anger over unemployment and rising food prices. The spark was a police attack on a university-educated street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, on December 17 in the central town of Sidi Bouzid. Claiming Bouazizi did not have a permit, police confiscated his goods and assaulted him.

In and of itself, it was an ordinary event in the life of a poor man. But what came next was anything but ordinary. Using his remaining funds, the street vendor bought gasoline, marched to city hall, doused his clothing and set himself ablaze. He died in hospital less than three weeks later.

“WE WILL AVENGE YOU”

In a country where the official jobless rate is 14 per cent and the real rate, especially for the young, is considerably higher, this dramatic episode became a lightning rod for popular discontent. Daily protests erupted immediately after Bouazizi’s desperate act, spreading to cities and towns across the country. Unemployed teachers, bus drivers, high school students and street vendors joined the mobilizations. As the movement gained momentum, demonstrators became increasingly confident, torching police cars and trashing businesses linked to President Ben Ali and his family. Then, following Bouazizi’s death, marchers at his funeral filled the air with chants of “Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today; we will make those who caused your death weep.” They more than made good on the pledge.

By this point, the protests had taken on an explicitly political character. Unemployment and food prices remained key issues, but the movement was now directly attacking the president and his government.

Ben Ali reacted with the tools that had worked for 23 years: a ban on demonstrations; arrests of leftists and trade union leaders; tear gas, truncheons and guns; police repression, including the killing of at least 66 protestors. But none of this was able to break the protests. Not only was the movement growing in size and militancy, but working class organizations were coming to life.

Trade unions, quiescent for years and their leaders initially hesitant to join the struggle, became key hubs of resistance thanks to pressure by rank and file members. Spurred into action and radicalized by events, the General Union of Tunisian Workers Days began organizing rallies and launched a general strike. It is difficult to overstate the potential significance of these developments. A revitalized trade unionism is critical to the development of the movement in the months ahead. If union activism surges forward and makes common cause with students, street vendors and the unemployed, the insurgency could acquire a vital organizational forum and an increasingly working class character. Moreover, an emboldened and dynamic workers’ movement might undercut the demobilizing effects of backroom deals between the old regime and moderate opposition parties.

WHO’S NEXT?

Equally important will be the degree to which the insurgent wave continues to flow across borders.

In the early days of January, riots broke out in Algeria in response to announced increases in prices for food and other staples. Railway workers struck, as did students at five universities. Clearly emboldened by events in neighbouring Tunisia, demonstrators attacked banks, police stations and government offices. Police violence and mass arrests – at least 1,000 people were detained – failed to dent the movement. As in Tunisia, the struggle moved to a higher level as unions and student groups came together demanding democratization and an end to police violence. In a desperate effort to stave off a Tunisian scenario, Algeria’s government back-tracked, declaring a 41 per cent cut to taxes on food.

Yet the spirit of rebellion did not rest. One day after Tunisia’s president was toppled, mass demonstrations erupted in Jordan on January 15, as thousands of people poured through the streets of Amman, the capital, and other cities to protest rising food prices and to demand the government`s resignation. Dubbed “Jordan’s Days of Rage,” the protests included a sit-in outside parliament by the country’s 14 trade unions.

Two days after the start of the Jordanian demonstrations, a new round of food riots broke out in northern Sudan, where the government is pushing up prices by lifting subsidies on food and petroleum.

This escalating insurgency has clearly shaken the regions rulers. The Arab News warned for instance that “Those who see these disturbances as a local North African difficulty should think again. The hopelessness that drove this young Tunisian to his death, that has prompted several thousand of his compatriots to do the rare thing for Tunisia – take to the streets and riot – and that has seen young Algerians looting and rioting this week against price rises are a breakdown in law and order that was waiting to happen. It can happen elsewhere in the Arab world. It is not just in North Africa that the specter of unemployment looms.”

This is all true. There are indeed reasons specific to the region and the regimes involved that make these states particularly susceptible to rapid outbreaks of mass opposition. But in the West, this has given rise to a colonialist discourse that attributes all ills to the demonstrable brutality of corrupt regimes. This conveniently ignores the direct role of states like the U.S. and France in propping up and supporting Ben Ali’s dictatorship for more than two decades. It also ignores the way in which these are local expressions of revolt linked to global economic issues.

FOOD AND THE GLOBAL SLUMP

For the massive spike in food prices is directly connected to the turmoil in the world economy that has been raging since the outbreak of the financial crisis of 2008.

The first effect of the global economic slump was to dampen rising food prices. As layoffs and unemployment soared, demand slumped and food prices came down. But now, as the crisis changes form, they are on the rise once again and reaching unprecedented heights. Indeed, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index has reached an all-time high, having risen a staggering 32 per cent in the last half of 2010. Food is now more expensive than ever, aggravating economic hardship across the Global South and throwing fuel on the fire of popular resentment.

One part of the story here has to do with new flows of “hot money” generated by the world-wide bank bailouts and economic stimulus programs. As banks melted down and the world financial system teetered in 2008-9, governments in the dominant capitalist nations poured something in the range of $20 trillion into propping up the system and pushed down interest rates. In the U.S. a further $600 billion is being injected into the system by the Federal Reserve.

With a growing money supply and record low interest rates, there is a huge incentive for investors and speculators to borrow on the cheap in order to buy commodities (and currencies) that look likely to appreciate. So, currencies like the Brazilian real have been soaring, as have prices for basic commodities like food and oil.

All of this is driving forward a wave of land grabs, particularly in Africa and Latin America, as global corporations and governments, like China’s, buy and lease millions of hectares of arable, drillable and water and mineral rich land. The result is yet further waves of accumulation by dispossession, to use David Harvey’s term, that displace indigenous peoples, peasants and farmers and deprive them of means of feeding themselves, thus exacerbating problems of displacement, hunger and poverty.

Add into the equation two further factors – the increasing use of arable land for the production of biofuels rather than food, and speculation by investors gambling that a poor Russian harvest or floods in Australia will damage food supplies and further drive up prices – and we have all the ingredients for huge price spikes and a new world food crisis. These are yet further ingredients for popular revolt.

This is why protests (some of them being manipulated by opportunists of the Right) are also building in India, where prices are soaring at a rate of more than 18 per cent – this in a country where the World Bank says 828 million live on less than $2 a day. In short, we are not dealing with a problem specific to the Arab world, even if movements there more readily become a direct challenge to authoritarian regimes. No, the problem has deep roots in the global economic system and the particular forms of its current crisis.

In my last blog I wrote that I would soon take up the question of resistance to the politics of austerity that characterize this period of global slump (“Like we said, it’s a global slump,” here). But the insurgents of Tunisia and beyond have beaten me to it. They are showing far better than any blogger what can be accomplished by spirited mass insurgency and revived working class activism.

David McNally teaches political science at York University, Toronto and is the author of the recently published book, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (see here).